Thursday, September 25, 2008

Uruguay, a different Carnival

(The opening parade of Carnival Uruguay 2008)

Now that we are back, it was time to get into the carnival spirit. On the program were of course the Llamadas of which we had heard so much. But in addition to that there was also the Teatro de Verano (it is named after someone, and doesn't mean Summer Theater as it might have if you translated it from the Spanish) and plenty of shows all around town.

(Teatro de Verano skit)

Before we left for our Uruguay tour we did catch the opening parade of the Carnival. We bought tickets to seats along the route. Something I haven't seen anywhere else (at least not on this scale). They set up rows of chairs along the carnival route, making for a pretty orderly viewing experience. Of course you might miss the walking around and catching the show from various vantage points. The advantage is that everyone gets a good view, including those vertically challenged. The opening parade included, floats, marching bands, dancing and lots of color and noise. All the children in town seem to also take part either in the parade itself or playing among the floats and the marchers. All the carnival troupes took part, so it was a very long parade.

(Homer and co, selling Mobile phones and liguid yogurt drinks)

One thing that to me seemed to stand out was the comercilization of the event. Lots of "comercial" floats (a float is a car/truck or vehicle, decorated and used as a platform for people, music, or other entertainment).

(Some more Teatro de Verano skits)

The various troupes would do shows of various types, comedy, musical, dance or a mixture at various venues around town during the duration of the carnival. In addition to this there were also "wandering minstrels" who would do a "show" on a bus, or in the middle of a crowd or pretty much anywhere where they had an audience. The bus guys had a captive audience and would often include the passangers in their routines. As we rode the buses around Montevideo extensively, we caught a few of these. A lot of the humor would be political or social satire, so we missed some of the jokes regarding current events, but the rest of the passengers seemed to find it pretty funny. Of course at the end, they would solicit a donation.

(Teatro de Verano)

Teatro de Verano is an open air theater in a huge park in central Montevideo near the beach. Here during the carnival season the various carnival clubs put on "shows". Depending on the type of club that it is they will put on a musical show, a theater piece, a satyrical show or something in between. The show we caught consisted of four troupes doing their, songs, skits and music and dancing. It is very colorful, loud and funny. The music is a major player in all of this, and most of the troupes release a CD with the years music. So on this night we were treated to theater skits, comedy routines, carnival music, plenty of dancing and singing, and some good food thrown in.

(The Llamadas)

The Llamadas turned out to be a parade of dancers followed by large assembly of drummers. Again, very colorful, each troupe has it's own costumes and colors, but the music is always the same (or similar). Very rhythmic if a bit monotonous or is that monotone? Unfortunately, just as we were getting into the spirit, it started raining. We got out of there just as a torrential downpour began. Once back at the house, we watched the rest of the happenings on tv. Turns out we didn't miss anything, as they broke off the parade when the rain started in earnest, although as the troupes are in competition those who had not yet paraded wanted to parade, and did so. Unfortuantely for them, the judges had already packed their bags and headed to drier ground. In the end those who had not yet marched when the jury took off, were invited to march on the following night (the Llamadas runs a couple of nights as there are so many troupes involved they can't all parade in a single night).

(Opening night, and the Llamadas side by side)

With that our Uruguay Carnival experience came to an end. As with all carnivals around the world, very colorful, very loud and boisterous. This carnival, had a bit of Brazil, and bit of New Orleans and lots of Uruguay.

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Getting to know Uruguay

(Some views of Montevideo)

(A beach in central Montevideo !!)

(The view of Montevideo from "El Cerro")

After the festivities of New Years were over it was time to do some maintenance on my bike. Remember the problem from Casimiro de Abreu? Well, now that I have the correct part it was time to put it in, as well as a number of other things. So that is what I did for around two weeks during the day, and in the evenings we might go to a movie or have dinner with some of Katherinas family. The time passed incredibly fast. At some point we decided that we would stay in Uruguay until after Carnival which would mean the end of January. A short while later we were informed that the best part of Carnival in Uruguay was the "Llamadas" which took place around the 8th of February, so we decided to hang around until then.

(La Paloma)

During this time we spent a few days at La Paloma, which is a beach resort up the coast. The beaches in Uruguay are very nice, for the most part wide open expanses of sand, with some very nice towns alongside them. La Paloma is one such place, although of course Punta Del Este is probably the best known resort town in Uruguay. Punta Del Este is where all the celebrety have vacation homes and during the season it is basically a non-stop party. For my money, a sleepy place like La Paloma is miles better. I might also mention that thought the beaches are very nice, the water is freezing. Nevertheless a few hardy souls could be found in the water.

(The Carlos Gardel Museum in the rain)

We also did a little ride around parts of the country. Specifically we headed north from Montevideo, to have a look at the famous Gardel Museum in Tacuarembo. For those of you who don't know who Gardel is check this link out: Carlos Gardel The museum is in a beautiful part of the country, green valleys and small hills everywhere. The museum itself is a testament to the lenghts that the people of Uruguay will go to dispell the notion that he was born anywhere else than right here! There are letters, and documents on all the walls, all which serve to show that he was born, and grew up near here. These include copies of passport applications etc. Besides that there are some newspaper articles on the walls which show Gardel in his various travels, and movie roles. The documentation is certainly convincing but in the end I was more interested in what he did than where he was from, and for that this museum wasn't really very good.

(Camping above the Salta Dam)

From here we headed west to the Salta where there is a huge dam across the River Uruguay, providing electricity for both Uruguay and Argentina. This took us through the heartland of Uruguay. When people ask me how Uruguay is, I can now confidently answer; pretty boring! Basically it is flat to roling grassland, with varying amounts of wind. The main commercial enterprise is livestock. Either cattle or sheep. There is not much industry other than some mining in the north, and general industry around Montevideo. Making the country pretty much a sleepy backwater, with some stunning beaches, few people, lots of cows and just generally relaxing.

(The dam at Salta, Argentina is on the left)

From Salta we headed south, along various paths and visited some of the villages along the river which also serves as the border to Argentina. In one place we ran across a park, which had at it's center, a piece of the Berlin wall (a very small piece at that, not much more than a large rock!). Surprising in the least. Ok, maybe not, the name of the town was Nuevo Berlin!

(In Paysandu, Postre Chaya)

With the exception of some pretty hefty rain showers we had some really nice weather, the roads were good, and it was just really nice to ride around this sparsely populated area. North of Colonia we found what turned out to be a particularly popular beach and campground. This being the middle of summer it was packed with tourists, mainly Argentinians who come here for the river beach. As luck would have it it had been raining on and off for the past few days, and as we drove in there was a very ominous cloud hanging over the area. Sure enough, just as I was finishing putting up the tent, the sky went totally black, and the wind picked up. After that the rains came, we are talking serious downpour, coupled with strong wind. Almost as quickly as it came it disappeared, all in all it lasted maybe 15 minutes, but the change was incredible. Where before there was nice green fields, or empty culverts, now everything was under water. Many tents were flooded and or had washed away. Our tent of course had no such problems, there weren't any quality tents, so it was to be expected. The things that pass for tents around here are barely more than a couple of thin aluminium poles holding up some thin fabric. Across the road from us was a guy with a much more brilliant idea than a tent. The guy had a medium size truck which was empty, inside he had his furniture, including a refrigerator, sofa, table and lamp. When the storm hit, he just closed the back door and rode it out. Pretty cool.

(A typical view of central Uruguay)

Once the thunderstorm was over the sun came out and we had a look around. There wasn't actually much to this beach, a brown wide river wasn't exactly appetizing after the virgin beaches of northern Brazil. Plenty of children seemed to disagree with me though!

From here we passed through Colonia which is a very picturesque town on the convergence of the Rio Uruguay and the Rio Plata. We just rode through and headed to Montevideo and some more Carnival fun.

(At the racetrack in Montevideo)

(Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo, Yum, Yum)

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Montevideo, Uruguay and New Years

(Sao Paulo Skyline at X-mas eve)

(X-mas Dinner)

Christmas in Sao Paulo was great, we had a wonderful dinner on the 24th with Dom and his family as well as the few guests who were in the Pousada. Dinner consisted of pretty much everything. Turkey, ham, roast, salad , so no-one went hungry. All in all it was really great, the next best thing to being at home. The following day we got a sneak peak at the new property that Dom is building in Guaraja, a beach city across the bay from Santos on the coast. The house is being totally renovated and expanded. When it is finished it should be great, and it is only a few blocks from the beach. We had a look at the beach, and it was packed, lots of activity, a real difference from the last time we drove through here with Claudio and Claudia, when it was cold, dark and totally empty, did I already mention cold?

(The whole gang having x-mas dinner.)

(Dom studying the plans of the Hostel)

Once I got my passport on Thursday it was finally time to get moving. The plan was to get to Montevideo by New Year, so early Friday morning we were on our way again. Unfortunately, so was half of Brazil. Everyone was leaving and although the road was great for the first 20km or so, once outside Sao Paulo it turned into a two lane road with lots and lots of trucks in addition to the holiday travelers. The result was km's, and km's of traffic jams. Luckily nothing like the 172km traffic jam coming into Sao Paulo a couple of days before Christmas that we had heard about. Nevertheless it was pretty hard traveling, which is really too bad as the scenery was excellent, up and down lots of hills and valleys in the direction of Curitiba. It would be a great biking road if there had been no traffic. With the bike I was able to keep moving and get through the worst of it, but it was still not a lot of fun. We passed through a lot of some great places heading south, but as we were on a mission, we didn't get a chance to enjoy much of it. In some places the road went along the coast and you had some really nice vistas, but due to the traffic, you really couldn't enjoy it. Oh, well, next time.

(The results of a car hitting the back of the box.)

The next major event was on Saturday, where we got into an accident with the bike. Luckily it was a minor scrape. We were coming off the main road about to take a break, and as we took the exit ramp at the bottom there was an intersection. We had right of way, and the traffic to right and left stopped. Well, not quite. A car approaching the intersection to my right was slowing down and had come to a rolling stop, as I passed he accelerated and hit the bike at the very rear of the box frame. He then continued on his marry way and left us to deal with the broken box frame. To boot, it had started to rain! It looked like Brazil, didn't want to let us go. Luckily the accident happen just a few meters from a gas station and a Borracheria (workshop). So we rolled in and explained the problem. The mechanic came out and had a look, I explained what was needed, and got started with the work. In short order we had everything more or less back in shape. With a bit of cutting, welding and hammering not to mention a crowbar. It is amazing what you can do with metal! Katheryna still had weak knees by the time we were back on the road, but the shock quickly wore off as the kilometers rolled on. By the time we stopped for the night we were hundreds of kilometers away, and the accident was just another experience in Brazil.

(It's not too difficult to fix a BMW)

The following day we went across the boarder into Uruguay at a place called Chuy. If you were to look at a map you would see that the road to Chuy runs along a long long stretch of wetlands, with the coast on the one side and various lagoons on the inside. The whole area is a protected nature area, and as such has a lot of birds and other animals (many dead on the road unfortunately), and few houses. It was a really nice ride through here, we saw turtles and lots and lots of birds of course, but also plenty of Nutria, both alive and dead, despite the many signs warning of their crossing. If you don't know what a Nutria is, it is something like a large beaver without a tail and a flatter face.
Crossing the boarder was a breeze, specially considering that it took 3 weeks to get my bike into Brazil. On leaving I just had to give them a copy of the paperwork, they gave me a receipt, stamped my passport and we were on our way.

(Katheryna in central Montevideo)

Uruguay was about the same, an entry form or two, get the carnet filled out and 20 minutes later we were in Uruguay. Hurray.
First looks was great, good roads, and little traffic so we made good progress. By the time we got to Montevideo we had crossed a good third of the country! What a difference from Brazil. The people here are much more European, both in looks and mannerisms. Driving through the outskirts of Montevideo you could be coming into any "smallish" city in Europe, or North America for that matter. No slums or shacks to be seen as in every city in Brazil. (There are slums of course, they just weren't readily visible coming into town..) Montevideo as the rest of Uruguay so far, turns out to be completely charming. Smallish, clean, orderly and easily maneuvered (ok, lots of small one way streets..), with a little help we made it to our destination pretty easily. As we had said that we would make it on Tuesday or so (after New Years), showing up on Sunday made for a great surprise. Katheryna's grandmother and aunt and uncle who happen to be visiting were overjoyed to see us.

(The new years lamb roast)

(It was excellent)

The following day, New Years, was spent with the whole family in a ruckus Uruguayan New Year celebration at Walter Luis's (a cousin) house, featuring fireworks, kids running around, a huge barbeque and plenty of drink. Sounds pretty much like New Years everywhere. Walter Luis's house happens to be near a park which has a great vantage point over the city, where you had a great panoramic view of the city around you. As midnight neared I had a look around, and it was spectacular. There is no single, central fireworks display, rather everyone in the city was setting their own off, having the effect of a huge fireworks celebration which lasted a good hour and a half. The whole city was lit with explosions coming from every corner and the noise echoing and reverberating from the buildings. Definitely one of the most impressive fireworks display that I have ever seen.

(Some fireworks in the street at New Years)

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